21 May 2015

Wolf Hall

by Eve Fisher

Like so many others, I was hooked by Wolf Hall, both the novel and the PBS Series.  I love both. My only quibble with the TV show was that the actors were so much thinner than the (overly?) well-known portraits of Henry VIII, Cromwell, and Wolsey - all of whom were EXTREMELY hefty men. But then, of course, times have changed. In the 16th century, physical weight proved power and privilege; today, thinness proves it, and Wolsey's massive weight would be considered proof of his lower-class origins...

Cardinal Wolsey Christ Church.jpg Cromwell,Thomas(1EEssex)01.jpg 

Well, that's only my first quibble...  my real quibble was with the portrayal of Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII's first wife.  By the time Anne Boleyn came along, Catherine had had at six pregnancies, five of whom were miscarriages, still births, or died in infancy.  Only Mary survived.  She was, by all accounts, at 45 years of age very stout ("as wide as she is high"), gray-haired, wrinkled, and not nearly as attractive as the lady who portrayed her (see right).  Once again, even historical women can't lose their looks in modern media...

But enough about that, let's get to the real danger:  politics.

Hans Holbein, the Younger - Sir Thomas More - Google Art Project.jpg
Sir Thomas More
Back in the 1950s and 1960s, Sir Thomas More, a/k/a St. Thomas More, was everybody's hero, thanks to Robert Bolt's "A Man for all Seasons". In that play More was presented as a married saint, a man of humor, humility, affability, intellect, education, and a keen sense of conscience. Thomas Cromwell was absolute evil, determined to ruin and destroy More - and does.  But then, all the people in power, from King Henry VIII to Cromwell to little Richard Rich, are presented as corrupt, expedient, power-hungry...  Only More is different, which is amazing when you consider that More was a politician from the time he was elected to Parliament at 26 until his resignation as Chancellor two years before his death.  It does raise the question how he, and he alone, managed to remain pure in the midst of all that fraud, double-dealing, dishonesty, unscrupulousness, corruption...

Workshop of Hans Holbein the Younger - Portrait of Henry VIII - Google Art Project.jpgAnyway, today we have Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, in which Sir Thomas More is less saintly and Thomas Cromwell less evil.  But there's nothing much you can do about Henry VIII.  The truth is, politics (not to mention marriage! is always a deadly game when you are dealing with an absolute monarch, who can have you killed at any moment, innumerable nobles who are all scrambling for scraps from said monarch's table, and a brewing religious war.  And the irony is that it didn't help that Henry VIII was an enlightened, extremely well-educated monarch:  the true philosopher prince everyone had always dreamed of.   Be careful what you wish for:  all that enlightenment, all that education, all that religious training combined with the divine right of kings meant that Henry thought he was always right about everything.  Especially when he wanted to get a new wife or more money, or be Head of the Church in order to get a new wife and more money.

When Henry made himself Head of the Church of England (with help from Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury), he put everybody in England on the spot:  who were you going to side with, Henry or the Pope?  Most sided with Henry because the Pope was foreign, so the hell with him.  But for many - most famously Thomas More, but also John Fisher, and 137 other priests, friars, and laypeople - it became a matter of conscience, and they were willing to die over it. And did.  Just as, later, Mary I ("Bloody Mary") executed almost 300 Protestants, including Archbishop Cranmer.  There is nothing worse than being in the middle of a religious civil war...
NOTE:  One of the problems with today's Middle East (which has one great big fat religious civil war right in the middle of it) and Middle Eastern politics is that too many Americans think the Sunni-Shiite split is much ado about nothing, and what they're really fighting about is us. (1) We have got to quit flattering ourselves and (2) think back to the Tudors.  Or, better yet, the European Wars of Religion of 1540s-1648.  
Back to Henry VIII:  one fairly unique thing that he did was change the government of England - briefly - when he made Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith's son, Lord Chancellor of England.  This was pretty unprecedented.  Yes, there were low-born churchmen from time immemorial, mainly because the Church took everybody and anybody, and it was the one place where you could rise from peasant to Cardinal to even pope.  Pope Sylvester II, the peasant's son.  Thomas Wolsey, the butcher's boy. Thomas Becket, the merchant's son.  But that's the church.  For the real ruling of the kingdom, for office and money and lands and a king's favor, you had to be noble.  Until Cromwell.

Anne of Cleves, by Hans Holbein the Younger.jpg
Anne of Cleves
Henry VIII grasped, briefly, the great advantage of having his chief officer be a commoner, not a nobleman.  He made him, he could break him, and in between, he could work him to death, without any complaints.  Meanwhile, the nobility despised Cromwell.  He was a nobody, a peasant, a thing that was beneath them, but now they had to actually speak to him, listen to him, ask him favors. They wanted him dead, and eventually - when Henry VIII was furious at the marriage to Anne of Cleves - they managed to get him charged with a variety of improbable crimes (including plotting to marry Mary Tudor, Henry VIII's daughter) and executed before Henry cooled off.  When he did, he felt awful, awful, AWFUL about it, and never ceased bewailing the loss of the best minister he ever had.  He'd also felt the same about executing Wolsey, after the fact.  "Bureaucracy Can Be Deadly" should be the subtitle of Wolf Hall.  That and/or "Henry VIII:  A Kill for All Seasons."

The young Louis XIV
A hundred years later, Louis XIV made commoners bureaucrats, but as a matter of principle.  Whereas the nobility were Henry VIII's best friends and playmates, Louis XIV never trusted the nobility because, when he was 12 years old, the nobility rose up against the monarchy (The Fronde).  They lost, of course.  Actually, they didn't lose so much as just run out of steam...  But Louis never forgot or forgave them the fact that he - the Sun King! - had had to go on the run.

So, when he came to full age and power, Louis decided that the only purpose of the nobility was to praise and support him, so he took away every shred of power from them.  His cabinet was almost entirely of (often brilliant) bourgeoisie, especially
Colbert mg 8447 cropped.jpg
Colbert

  • Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Finance Minister, who actually managed to keep Louis XIV solvent despite his royal tendency to spend money like water on everything from royal mistresses, royal chateaux, and piss-ant wars.
  • Michel Le Tellier, Chancellor of France, who nationalized the army.  Pity it was for Louis XIV.  
And I have to say, on Louis XIV's behalf, that he never executed any of them.  And yet, he only increased in power: absolute monarchy would remain in France for another 150 years, admittedly limping towards the end.  Meanwhile, by the time Louis XIV came to power in the mid-1600's, the English House of Commons had become the greatest force in the English Parliament and, hence, of the English government - doing everything from passing laws and raising taxes to executing Charles I in 1649 and setting up a Commonwealth. When Charles II was "restored" to the throne in 1660, he walked very, very carefully, doing nothing to upset Parliament.  And, after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the Bill of Rights of 1689, the monarchs of England were all constitutional monarchs, firmly under Parliament, and not the other way around.

Today, of course, we take it for granted that bureaucracy is done by, of, and for the commons.  But it's still deadly.  Disgruntled office workers lead to regular crime scenes on the national news.  And there's more than one way to skin a cat:  if you don't want to risk murder, there's always slander, and in today's age of cyber-bullying, it's easier than ever to destroy someone's reputation and career.

Anne Boleyn would be smeared in every chat room; Cromwell would be trashed on the Drudge Report or Daily Kos and perhaps both; Cranmer would be the idol of Patheos until he wasn't; the tweets would have been nonstop about Jane Seymour; the cyber-whispering would be constant, and at the heart of it all would be the King, strutting and posturing without pause, even when his footsteps walked through blood.
"Kings are earth's gods; in vice their law's their will."  Shakespeare, Pericles, Prince of Tyre
— or  —
“You can be merry with the king, you can share a joke with him. But as Thomas More used to say, it's like sporting with a tamed lion. You tousle its mane and pull its ears, but all the time you're thinking, those claws, those claws, those claws.” Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies

9 comments:

janice law said...

Must say I much prefer the books to the TV production, although Damien Lewis, though thin, as you say, does convey Henry's sly and possibly unstable, intelligence.
They are all notably clean, too, and thankfully, would not have smelled quite as bad as in the days before washers, dryers and good plumbing.

Eve Fisher said...

Oh, I agree, Janice - the books are so marvelously written, I am in awe of Mantel.

David Edgerley Gates said...

Nicely put. I too admire the novels - although as chewy as they are, they take a little getting used to - and I thought the show was terrific. (I have to agree about the license taken.) I think the extraordinary thing about Cromwell's rise is exactly what Eve is pointing out, that he depends entirely on the king's favor, but more to the point, it was a merit promotion. Good post.

David Dean said...

One reason I think this story continues to resonate is this: It is the moment that the English-speaking world embraces secularism. And though the schism would continue to generate religious fervor and violence for some time after, the steady march to state over church had begun.

As for More, his own words toward the end of his life may illuminate something about his thinking in the midst of Henry's court: "Give me the Grace Good Lord, to set the world at naught; to set my mind fast upon Thee and not to hang upon the blast of men's mouths. To be content to be solitary. Not to long for worldly company but utterly to cast off the world and rid my mind of the business thereof."

Melodie Campbell said...

I want to go back to your point about how women are portrayed on these shows, Eve. It disturbs me greatly that even when we know how historical women looked, we now have to portray them as glam. (Or at least, slim, because fat is the ultimate sin.) My question is: do the directors demand this, or do the actresses themselves not want to appear imperfect on screen?

Dale Andrews said...

I enjoyed the series very much. It would be an interesting juxtaposition to go back now and watch the (1970?) six part series "The Six Wives of Henry the Eighth," particularly since that series is, in each episode, structured from the wife's perspective.

Remember the old device that some of us used when going into a history exam on that era? "divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived."

R.T. Lawton said...

Eve, a very interesting and insightful article. Thanks. Treachery and power struggles are often themes in a couple of my short story series.

Dixon Hill said...

Fascinating, Eve. And I think your point about the impact of the information age on these folks --tweets, sound bites, and blog bytes -- is spot-on!

Eve Fisher said...

Melodie, I think it's the casting directors' call - they cast thin actors and actresses for all the parts; and overly young actresses for all. And they keep doing this for every show! I remember being particularly upset about this back with "A Beautiful Mind", in which, at the end when John and Alicia Nash are at the Nobel Prize ceremony, they put a little grey in Jennifer Connolly's hair and called that old: the real Alicia Nash had gained some weight and the typical number of wrinkles. Grrrr....